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Parramatta coach Stephen Kearney has called for greater leadership from his senior players – including captain Nathan Hindmarsh – in the wake of last Friday night’s capitulation against the Bulldogs as the Eels try to salvage a season that is rapidly descending into free fall.

But he has also leapt to the defence of under-fire halves pairing Daniel Mortimer and Jeff Robson, insisting he won’t be making wholesale changes to his squad despite four losses from their past five games.

The Eels have used a staggering 25 players already this season and will be without superstar fullback Jarryd Hayne against the Gold Coast on Sunday following his head-butt on Canterbury forward Corey Payne last week. Hayne and Hindmarsh were both sin-binned late in the first half with their side leading 14-0 and their absence sparked a Bulldogs resurgence.

Although Kearney admitted his side’s lack of depth was cause for some concern, he insisted it was up to Hindmarsh and Hayne to set a better example for their younger team-mates.

“That’s probably been an area of concern for us over the opening rounds of the season and that’s something we’ll be addressing,” Kearney told today.

“There were two indiscretions that from our point of view were unacceptable. I’m pretty sure that both players would put their hand up. If they had their time over again I’m sure they wouldn’t do that. The consequences of that – we really shouldn’t have let the Bulldogs back into the game.

“As I said, that’s something we will address this week.”

However, Kearney was quick to defend Mortimer and Robson who he says have become scapegoats for Parramatta’s poor performances over the past 18 months.

The Eels have long battled to find a stable halves pairing and brought highly rated young halfback Brad Murray to the club from Sydney Roosters this season. But Kearney said he wouldn’t rush to make any dramatic changes to his squad.

“They (Mortimer and Robson) were a part of why we got to the position we got to in the first half hour [against the Bulldogs] and all of a sudden it gets blamed on them for what happened after that. It often does,” he said.

“I’m going to give them their opportunity. I understand that at some point they’re going to take the blame and their performances will continue to be scrutinised. If we need to make changes I’ll make that decision when the time comes but again, I’ll give them every opportunity to prove what they can do.”

It has been a frustrating start to the year for Parramatta fans, who held high hopes of a resurgence in 2011 following the appointment of New Zealand’s World Cup-winning coach Kearney.

Having kicked off the season with an impressive win over the Warriors in New Zealand, the Eels have quickly slipped back into their inconsistent form of 12 months ago with a scratchy win against North Queensland mixed with losses to Penrith, South Sydney, Melbourne and Canterbury.

And Kearney admits it could take some time before his side becomes a force once more, describing 2011 as a rebuilding year for the club.

“You would have to say that, given the list that we’ve got,” he said. “As much as I don’t really want to say it’s a rebuilding phase, that’s the situation we find ourselves in.

“Having said that I don’t think that should stop us from going out there and competing and affecting our performances. I think regardless of what stage we’re at as a football club, there is still a requirement and an expectation to go out there and perform at our very best.

“We trained really well in the pre-season, we trained really hard but when we get into the grind of week-to-week competition we find out – and we have done the last couple of weeks – some habits come out which are only magnifying the pressure that we’re already under. There are old habits there but again that comes down to not compromising what we want to do and what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve got to keep working towards where we want to go.”

Asked about the use of 25 players in just six rounds in 2011, Kearney said it was a combination of design and default as he gradually learned more about his new squad.

“It’s a bit of both,” he admitted. “A player like [20-year-old centre] Ryan Morgan started the season off because he trained really well during the pre-season and Joel Reddy wasn’t quite ready. So he got first opportunity in that sense. I made a decision to bring Joel back in place of Chris at one stage.

“But I think a lot of that has also been because we’ve had a couple of injuries to guys.

“There is no denying that we’re going through a bit of a tough time in that sense and it’s important that we work our way through. I guess the upside of last week’s performance is the first half hour. We were fairly dominant in that period and that’s one good thing we can take out of the last couple of weeks.”